Read this before you order Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew

So, you've decided to try Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew. Good for you. 

Maybe you're diligently working your way through sampling the coffee chain's entire menu (you know there's a secret menu too, right?). Maybe you're drawn to the name, which sounds simultaneously superheroey and fashionably artisanal. Maybe you once enviously watched a barista pour one from the countertop tap for someone else while enjoying your regular, more familiar order. Maybe you don't even know your reasons. 

But whatever they are, it's good to know what you're getting yourself into. Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew was first rolled out in select locations in 2016, then it made its way into 80 percent of company-owned stores by summer 2019, and it will gradually expand to all locations nationwide (via Bustle) by the end of 2019. It's a decidedly different drinking experience than all the other coffee and espresso beverages offered at Starbucks. It's made and served differently, and it has a unique look, taste, and texture. Here's what you need to know before you order Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew.

What exactly is Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew, anyway?

If you're a curious person, or one of those finicky types who likes to know what things are before you partake, you might be wondering what Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew is. While it is a cold coffee drink, it's not the same thing as iced coffee, which is brewed the same way as hot coffee — quickly with hot water — and then chilled.  

Unsurprisingly, cold brew coffee is brewed at a much lower temperature than traditionally brewed coffee. This technique requires a longer brewing time. Generally, it takes 12 to 24 hours of steeping in cool to room-temperature water, in contrast to drip coffee that brews in hot water in a matter of minutes; Starbucks steeps its version for 20 hours. From a producer's standpoint, one big benefit is that cold brew has a shelf life of weeks to months, as opposed to a few hours for regular coffee. But this process alters lots of other characteristics of the coffee, too (via Eat This, Not That!).

Once it's made, cold brew typically goes into a bottle or keg to be stored at a cold temperature, rather than into a coffee pot or urn. Nitro cold brew is just cold brew, kegged coffee that's infused with nitrogen as it's poured into your cup. This too further changes many of the beverage's characteristics.

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew is all about the body

Let's assume you've guzzled your fair share of iced coffees from Starbucks and other upstanding purveyors of chilled caffeinated beverages. You're probably thinking you've seen, tasted, and mouthfelt it all. Well, forget everything you think you know about drinking cold coffee.

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew pours slowly from a tapped keg, looking more like a stout beer being served than a coffee product. Thanks to the nitrogen, a froth of fine bubbles forms and fills the cup, slowly separating and rising to the top of the liquid. Give it a minute to settle before diving in, and you're left with a cup of dark coffee topped with a head of thick, luxurious, cream-colored crema — again, very much resembling a freshly poured Guinness

The texture of the beverage also comes closer to a stout than a traditional iced coffee. Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew is less watery than regular hot or cold coffee. It feels more substantial, richer, and velvety smooth in your mouth. This makes it well suited to a leisurely sipping experience, rather than gulping it down for a speedy caffeine fix on-the-go. 

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew is missing a few key elements

To avoid any potential misunderstandings when you receive your Nitro Cold Brew from Starbucks, know that things go down a little differently than with other cold beverage orders at Starbucks. Specifically, you won't get a couple of things you might expect — and you're not supposed to. So don't berate the barista and angrily snatch your tip back from the jar. 

Nitro Cold Brew is served without ice. Cold brew is brewed cold and stored cold, so it's already chilled without the addition of ice. But more importantly, ice in the cup disrupts the natural flow and formation of that beautiful trademark crown of foam that any self-respecting nitro has.

They also won't give you a straw. The Nitro comes with a strawless cold drink lid, equipped with a broad hole that facilitates the desirable experience of tasting the frothy topping along with the rich coffee. Don't use a straw, as drinking through it bypasses the foam. The best approach is to remove the lid altogether (who wants to drink out of a sippy cup anyway?) and imbibe entirely unencumbered, maybe even getting a sexy little foam mustache.

Don't try to order a venti Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew

Since you're heading into Starbucks for a pick-me-up, don't set yourself up for the deflating experience of being told "No" by your otherwise friendly, accommodating Starbucks barista. If you order a venti or trenta Nitro Cold Brew, you'll learn the hard way that the customer is not, in fact, always right.

Yes, even in this irrepressibly-eager-to-upsell coffee shop, Starbucks only sells Nitro Cold Brew in the tall and grande sizes. No amount of pleading, raging, weeping, or stuffing fistfuls of crumpled dollar bills into the tip jar will get you a bigger one. 

While many people assume it's because a risk-adverse corporation is afraid of sending customers to the floor in a twichy, giggly, incoherent fit of over-caffeination, that's not the reason. After all, they'll serve you a venti Pike Place with a couple of espresso shots dumped in if you want it, or they'll serve you three grande Nitro Cold Brews in a row — options with more caffeine than a venti Nitro Cold Brew would deliver.

It's about quality assurance. The beverage's creamy texture and thick head — which result from what Starbucks refers to as its "nitro cascade" and "cascade of bubbles" — just don't settle in quite right in the larger cups. So, to prevent the nitro effects from spreading too thin in a vessel with too much volume, and to ensure you get to enjoy the beverage as intended, the Nitro Cold Brew is only served in the 12-ounce and 16-ounce cold cups.

What does a Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew taste like?

At this point, you're probably thinking, "It's nice, all this talk of low-and-slow steeping methods, lovingly pouring out from a tap, cascading bubbles, a fancy frothy head, a rich and creamy body, and a surprising number of dos and don'ts involved in the proper consumption of a cup of coffee. But all I really wanted to know is if tastes good."

Such things are subjective, obviously. But sure, it tastes good. First, brewing with the lower-temperature water extracts less of the bitter and acidic compounds that you taste in traditionally brewed coffee. This makes for a smoother, less astringent flavor than you get with hot or iced drip coffee that was brewed using hot water.

Then, the infusion of nitrogen also enhances the flavor of the cold brew. Along with its sultry effects on the appearance and texture of the drink, nitrogen also imparts a slight sweetness. And if you'll excuse a little oenophile-style talk, the nitrogen is even said to coax out some of the natural chocolatey undertones in the coffee. Look for it when you sip, and you'll pick up on it.

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew is best served black

As previously mentioned, you forgo the ice and straw to enjoy a cup of Nitro Cold Brew to the fullest. Hopefully, you've come to terms with all that and resolved to soldier on. But that's not the end of the old iced coffee habits you must let go of; the nitro gods demand further sacrifices, but for which you shall be richly rewarded.

Starbucks serves Nitro Cold Brew unsweetened and without milk, half-and-half, soy milk, almond milk, or whatever other creamer-type agent you like to splash into your coffee. And you're strongly advised not to head over to the condiment bar to add any of these extras in yourself. But if you've been paying attention, this shouldn't be alarming.

Dumping and stirring more stuff into a Nitro Cold Brew messes with its texture and destroys its foam top. Furthermore, as a sweeter and notably less bitter alternative to regular coffee, this beverage doesn't need to be sweetened; just enjoy the well-developed natural flavors without doctoring. And creamers are added to coffee to cut its acidity and to create a richer, creamier texture — but the nitrogen already has that covered for you, and to even greater effect.

But you can add some flavor to your Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew if necessary

If there's one thing Starbucks has down to a science, it's enticing customers to try new (more profitable) drinks by introducing seemingly endless variations on a theme. And even the glorious Nitro Cold Brew — touted as a perfect specimen in its natural form — is no exception.

So, if you're hopelessly dismayed by the prospect of drinking a Nitro Cold Brew without any added creamer, sugar, or other sweetener, there's good news: Starbucks offers some specialty Nitro Cold Brew variations that make the standard form creamier and sweeter. And they can do so without disturbing the beverage's picturesque foam head.

As is often the case with Starbucks specialty items, some Nitro Cold Brew variations may be seasonal or limited-time-only offerings. However, the most basic enhanced version that seems to endure is the Nitro Cold Brew with Sweet Cream. Order one of these, and your drink is topped off with a float of vanilla-flavored sweet cream. This is a good option if the standard cup just isn't sweet and milky enough for your palate.  

A couple of other options as of this writing include the Nitro Cold Brew with Salted Cream Cold Foam, which has salted cream foam and caramel flavoring added in; and the Nitro Cold Brew with Cascara Cold Foam, featuring a cascara-flavored foam topping.

Is there more caffeine in a Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew?

The question of whether cold brew coffee contains more caffeine than traditionally brewed coffee isn't nearly as straightforward as you might expect. Here's a quick rundown of why, just to make your head spin. Hopefully you've had your coffee already.

Brewing with cold water extracts less caffeine than hot water, so that's a check in the lower-caffeine column. But the coffee grounds-to-water ratio is higher in cold brewing (up to 2.5 times more coffee than in traditional hot brewing), plus steeping lasts many hours to a day longer; both factors increase the caffeine content. The type of coffee bean, grind size, and other considerations affect how much caffeine is in any given batch, too (via Kitchn). Then, remember that a cup of Nitro Cold Brew is all coffee and no ice, so it's considerably more coffee than is in the same size cup of straight cold brew or iced coffee.

But, thanks to Starbucks' nutritional information on its website, it's possible to figure out what's what as far as caffeine content in its beverages is concerned. Contrary to popular belief, the nitro doesn't have particularly high caffeine levels, relatively speaking. A grande Nitro Cold Brew has 280 mg of caffeine. That's less than a grande hot Blonde Roast (360 mg) or grande hot Pike Place Roast (310 mg). It is, however, more than a grande Iced Coffee (165 mg). 

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew will cost you more

If you've ever read an article about sticking to a budget or getting your debt under control, you've undoubtedly seen that now-classic advice about cutting out your daily Starbucks latte and making your own coffee at home. But as infamous as it is as a frivolous waste of money, this certainly doesn't seem to have hindered the company's growth and success. 

Still, if you intend to make a habit of the Nitro Cold Brew at Starbucks, you're committing to one of the pricier beverages on the menu — including espresso drinks as well as coffee drinks. Nitro cold brews are generally known to be more expensive than straight cold brews and traditional hot and iced coffees at most coffee shops, and this has been true at Starbucks since they introduced the drink. 

Starbucks' prices vary a bit by region and by local tax rate, and of course they're always creeping up over time. But just to give you a basic idea, expect to spend a little more on the nitro version than on regular cold brew — somewhere in the vicinity of 40 percent more for the nitro than you'd spend on an iced coffee of the same size.

Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew does a body good

If you're like most people, you drink coffee because it's good and because the caffeine is essential to making it through the endless days of droopy-eyed drudgery we call life. Not so much for its health benefits. But coffee — including cold brew — does have a number of them, so there's a little icing on your cake. Or froth on your coffee. 

There's one notable caveat on this topic, if you happen to consume coffee for its antioxidant content: As previously mentioned, cold brewing extracts less of certain acidic compounds from the coffee, making the resulting drink less astringent. But some of these compounds, like chlorogenic acid, are also the source of some of the antioxidants in brewed coffee. On the upside, though, the lower acidity makes Starbucks' Nitro Cold Brew (or regular Cold Brew) gentler on the digestive tract, so it's a useful option for coffee lovers who tend to get heartburn or an upset stomach when they drink it.

Otherwise, your nitro beverage offers a variety of the same potential health benefits associated with regular moderate coffee intake. Just to name a few, these include boosted metabolism and help with weight control or weight loss, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, improved mood, protection against certain degenerative conditions like dementia and Parkinson's, and even increased life expectancy. Also, the Starbucks Nitro Cold Brew may be thick, rich, and creamy, but a plain, tall one only has 5 calories. So, by all means, drink up!